‘The Forty-Year-Old Version’ raps a new beat in a classic city

Not to be confused with Steve Carell — that’s a different 40-year-old — Radha Blank is an aspiring playwright in New York. Keyword: aspiring. Despite having won a “30 Under 30” award, the last decade of her life has been a rollercoaster ride with a lot more drops than climbs. These days, she’s teaching theatre at a Harlem high school and struggling to stage her dream project. She lives alone in an apartment she can barely afford, a patterned headscarf wrapped snug around her hair while she ceaselessly sips from a diet drink.

It was only a matter of time before a midlife crisis came knocking, but for Blank, it feels less like a last-ditch effort and more like a kind of second calling. Inspired by her students and her freestyling, high school glory days, Blank becomes a rapper. “Why my skin so dry?” she recites in the mirror. “Why am I yawning right now?” She wants to bring a 40-year-old perspective to the Brooklyn rap game, and in the semi-autobiographical “The 40-Year-Old Version,” she does much more. Recasting classic New York comedies with a Black woman front and center, Blank shows a side of the city that Woody Allen and the like have for too long ignored.

Having become only the second Black woman in Sundance history to win the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award (after Ava DuVernay), Blank sizzles both behind and in front of the camera for her charming cinematic debut. The handsome black-and-white cinematography by Eric Branco evokes something akin to “Manhattan,” while his handheld camerawork roots the film in real life. The soundtrack is an inspired mix of Blank’s own beats — her stage name is RadhaMUSPrime — with classic hip-hop and jazz.

The film is also, of course, very funny. The staged quality of some of this humor comes into conflict with the otherwise authentic presentation — particularly toward the beginning of the film — but hey, these lines are too good to pass up.

Blank’s writing is also insightful, especially when her play, “Harlem Ave.,” is finally picked up by a producer. Originally a genuine investigation into the cause and effects of New York’s gentrification, the play is co-opted by Blank’s white producer and his choice for its (white) director. The result is a clumsy production that tries to “talk about race,” yet ultimately says nothing. Blank easily weaves between jokes about the play’s tone-deafness and pointed statements on how a white industry can compromise the vision of Black artists. It wouldn’t be so funny if it weren’t so true. (Cough, “Green Book.” What was that? Did you hear something?)

That having been said, “The 40-Year-Old Version” sometimes feels like Blank’s first film. Her script is funny and insightful, but also long; there’s no need for this movie to be two hours and four minutes, yet it is. Although it could have used a little trimming, the editing by Robert Grigsby Wilson is otherwise solid. Drawing from the playbook of Mr. Spike Lee — whose “She’s Gotta Have It” was clearly an influence — Wilson and Blank make great use of photographic cut-ins and other kinds of cut-aways, which punctuate the film and keep the viewer on their toes.

As Netflix expands into the specialty market — snatching up indies from festivals like Sundance and distributing them to a much larger audience than they ever could have imagined — I urge that they continue choosing movies like “The 40-Year-Old Version.” Not just because it’s good, but because it comes from a place that Hollywood pretends doesn’t exist.

Welcome to the movies, Radha. It may have taken 40 years, but we’re more than happy to have you. 7/10

This review was originally published on October 14, 2020 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.

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